Concerns surrounding the departure of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in March 2018 were discussed last Wednesday in Abuja between the President of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Marcel de Souza, and the UN Undersecretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Coordinator of United Nations Operations in Liberia, Farid Zarif.
According to a release from Abuja, UNMIL’s departure is already underway with the drastic reduction in the United Nations’ civilian, military, and police components in Liberia.
Marcel de Souza and Farid Zarif exchanged views on appropriate measures to ensure peace, stability, and security in Liberia after the final withdrawal of the United Nations, especially in light of the presidential election on October 10 this year.
For the ECOWAS Commission President, elections in Africa are generally a period of risks, or unrest. To that end, he sued for the implementation of civilian and military actions by the regional organization with support from the United Nations, which will include assistance to Liberia’s Electoral Commission, deployment of a long-term ECOWAS Mission to work with the Commission on the voter register, joint ECOWAS-African Union-United Nations visit as well as sending soldiers to Liberia.
On the issue of sending soldiers to the country, Marcel de Souza did not back the United Nations’ proposal to deploy Senegalese soldiers currently in Mali to Liberia.
“Two-thirds of the Malian territory is at present beyond the control of the government. Jihadists from Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan are wreaking havoc and committing atrocities in Mali and other ECOWAS member states. For these reasons, it would therefore not be wise to withdraw Senegalese soldiers from Mali to be sent to Liberia,” stated Marcel de Souza.
In West Africa, we do not need a Peacekeeping Force, but rather a Peace Enforcement Force, because we need to create peace first before maintaining it, suggested de Souza, noting that with a force of 5,000 men, ECOWAS could defeat the terrorists, who loot and kill innocent people in the region.
“We need a new strategy and equipment to effectively combat the terrorists,” he concluded.
Although Liberian officials are yet to speak to the planned UNMIL withdrawal, the country seems nearly, but not quite ready to go it alone without the UN peacekeeping support. This was the upshot of the December 23, 2016 UN Security Council meeting, where it was decided that UNMIL, whose mandate had expired, would be extended until March 2018 for the final time.
Since the end of its devastating civil war in 2003, Liberia has made significant headway in consolidating its peace, but the latest concern the sub regional block raised gives cause for worry.
The Liberian National Police has slowly taken over the security sector from UNMIL; there have been efforts to develop a stronger justice system; and the government has adopted policies and strategies designed to address the root causes of conflict.
This year is particularly important for Liberia. It will conduct its first post-conflict, open-seat elections – and incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will hand over power to one of 22 political parties. It is unlikely that there will be one clear winner and parties will potentially have to form coalitions to gain a clear majority.
Already, allegations against some political party leaders have led to conflicts with the police. If the mudslinging witnessed so far is anything to go by, there is the potential that progress could be threatened.
The government’s ability to provide security is already being compromised by inadequate capacity. Security forces are stretched to their maximum: the government has committed to providing 8000 police officers, but current figures are much lower than the expected personnel.
An added challenge is the spread of resources. Monrovia receives a disproportionate allocation, while only 24% of police officers are deployed to the inaccessible, rural areas outside of the capital.
The decision to extend the UN peacekeeping presence in Liberia is therefore not surprising. Despite the pressure for Liberia to take full ownership of its peace-building challenges, recent field research has shown that UNMIL is still seen as a security blanket for the country. The presence of a continued UNMIL could act as a deterrent to those considering election-related violence.
Marcel de Souza and Farid Zarif also discussed the transfer to ECOWAS of the United Nations Mission in Liberia’s radio station broadcasting from Monrovia.
De Souza gave Zarif ECOWAS’ agreement in principle to take over the station and extend its broadcasts and programs to other Member States of the regional organization.
“This radio station will not only broadcast in the three official languages of ECOWAS, which are English, French and Portuguese, but also in national languages of the region’s Member States. What is more, it will be the first ECOWAS agency in Liberia,” declared Marcel de Souza.
Marcel de Souza requested his Resident Representative to Liberia, Ambassador Babatunde Ajisomo, and the ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Mrs. Halima Ahmed, to continue discussions with Farid Zarif on the transfer of the United Nations’ responsibilities to the regional organization.